Nat Geo Kids for iPad Keeps Those Sticky Fingers Busy

By Steve Smith

One of the first surprise discoveries of the mobile content era was that phones were incredibly effective pacifiers of young children. Unexpectedly, some of the first and most popular content in the Verizon VCast video repositories years ago were cartoons and Sesame Street shorts. Apparently handing your kid a phone in airports and car back seats was a popular way parents kept the young ones occupied during boring stretches. And as the mobile platform expands to tablet formats, one would expect that the family iPad is likely to find itself in the back seat during those long family drives. Companies like Oceanhouse Media have built businesses on series like their Dr. Seuss talking, animated books

This is good news for kid content providers like National Geographic, but it is also challenging. Keeping kids entertained is harder than it looks. National Geographic Kids for iPad ($1.99) works because it looks and feels a lot like an interactive placemat at a Howard Johnson’s. That is a compliment, by the way. Kids love those things. The landscape mode is used well to present the user with enormous illustrations (some scrolling several screens in length) and colorful buttons, audio clips and video.

What the app does best is take a print activities book and make it interactive. Almost every page has a tappable slide show or a quiz, audio clip or game that responds in some way to the touch interface. The usual print quiz gives you immediate positive or negative feedback when you tap right and wrong answers. Even relatively static pages with a single image have some small animation to liven up the experience. There is nothing elaborately interactive here – no massive embedded games or huge video libraries. But just about every page of a typical activities magazine has been gently massaged into a slightly more engaging use of touch mechanics. Ironically, the least lively and interactive element of the entire issue is a feature on the latest iteration of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise. We get a small set of audio samples from the film but mostly just repurposed print content in a long scroll. Rights issues, perhaps.

While all of the interactivity that is in NGKids is welcome and appropriate, there is also nothing especially innovative here. It is a mild but good-enough enhancement of print. More links to Web materials and a genuinely engaging touch screen game would have added considerably to the app’s appeal. As is, it demonstrates that a modicum of touch can be modestly entertaining. A richer experience for kids from a magazine brand is still waiting to be built.